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SFMTA Proposes Self-Driving Buses, Ferries, Garbage Trucks

Bid for $50 million federal grant to reinvent mass transit

San Francisco is telling the federal government: You give us $50 million, and we’ll give you self-driving buses.

Automating some Muni services is only part of the proposal that the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency included in their bid for a big-money grant from the Department of Transportation. San Francisco is one of seven cities vying for the prize (originally there were 78), which the government will pay out to the municipality it deems best fit to pioneer the next generation of public transit infrastructure.

Transit secretary Anthony Foxx visited last week to hear SFMTA propose a future where individual automobiles are relics compared to automated mass transit that whisks San Franciscans to and fro in a kind of space-age web of vehicles that are constantly communicating with each other.

"Muni Metro light rail is automated underground-only below Market Street and through the Twin Peaks Tunnel," the city’s proposal points out. Automating it above ground next might not be too difficult of a feat. "Self-driving shuttles operating at low speeds can fill gaps in neighborhoods that do not meet the high demand threshold for scheduled transit as well."

Taking a page from Uber, the city also imagines fleets of on-demand cars, shared rather than privately owned. Robo-ferries would service Treasures Island. Even the garbage trucks would be autonomous, and real-time data about the performance of these systems would be available to everyone via an all-in-one app.

It’s heady stuff. Of course, the jokes are easy to make: Can even Silicon Valley design an automated bus that's reliably late enough to simulate the Muni service we're all used to, etc.? But maybe keep those to yourself until after the competition is over: We're trying to beat out Austin, Portland, Cleveland, Kansas City (MO), Denver, and Pittsburgh.

The money comes with some additional freebies from DoT partners: All city buses will be outfitted with new collision detection systems; Amazon will pony up $1 million worth of credits for their data cloud services; and San Jose-based NXP Semiconductors will provide wireless modules that allow cars to exchange data with each other from a mile away.

Foxx will choose a winning city in June. The $50 million grant (which would cover only a third of the projected cost of the entire proposal) includes a $10 million private donation to electrify the winning city’s mass transit system.